THE United States wants to remain involved in the campaign to quell Islamic militancy in Mindanao, its
ambassador to Manila said Tuesday after President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to kick out American forces.
Ambassador Philip Goldberg said the security threat in the conflict-plagued region was “very serious,” warning the Islamic State group was among a number of foreign militant organizations trying to increase its involvement there.
“We’ve helped the Philippines as it has reduced the threat over time,” Goldberg said in a television interview.
“But we are concerned obviously about any new intrusion of ISIS (Islamic State) or any other group that wants to take advantage of open space in the south of the Philippines. So we want to continue doing that,” he added.
But Duterte upped the ante and told the US to forget a 2014 military deal that allows the rotational presence of American troops in the country, saying “I do not want to see any military man of any other nation except the Filipino soldiers.”
Speaking to reporters before leaving for Tokyo, the President said that the US could “forget” the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) signed by the previous Aquino administration.
“If I stay here long enough, one day that EDCA will – if it is an executive agreement then I will just …,” Duterte said, ending his statement by sweeping his hands.
Arriving in Tokyo for a visit, Duterte called the Americans “bullies” and told his Western critics: “Do not f*** with our dignity.”
‘Pack up and leave’
Duterte took issue at the statements of Daniel Russel, the US assistant secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, who asked Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay on Monday in a visit to Manila to tone down the anti-American rhetoric.
“You know, I did not start the fight, they are the ones who started it,” the President said of his American critics, recalling that Goldberg had criticized him during the election campaign for his remarks on the jailhouse rape of an Australian missionary in Davao City in 1989.
“These Americans are really crazy. Their style is to walk here. They think they are somebodies,” Duterte said, as he held up a newspaper with headlines reporting the criticism from Russel.
“Russel says ‘Duterte comments causing worries in business communities.’ Then you pack up and leave. We will recover, I assure you.”
Duterte said he was not a “lapdog” of the United States, and again voiced anger at American and European criticism of supposed extrajudicial killings on his watch.
“Do not make us dogs. Do not. As if I am a dog with a leash and then you throw bread far away that I cannot reach,” he said.
The United States had deployed from 2002 to 2014 a rotating force of about 600 troops to the southern Philippines to train local soldiers in how to combat Islamic militants.
The Mindanao presence was scaled down after the United States deemed the militants there had “largely devolved into disorganized groups resorting to criminal undertakings,” according to a US statement in 2014.
Islamic militant attacks spiked after that, most prominently with the homegrown Abu Sayyaf group abducting dozens of foreigners and locals to extort ransoms.
About 100 American troops remain in Mindanao, Goldberg said on Tuesday.
But Duterte, who took office on June 30, has said they are adding to tensions with the Islamic communities in the southern island.
Duterte, who describes himself as a socialist and part Muslim, has called for their ejection as part of a general effort to dilute his nation’s 70-year alliance with the United States.
Islamic militants have waged a decades-long separatist insurgency in Mindanao that has claimed more than 120,000 lives.
The region is the ancestral homeland of the Muslim minority in the mainly Catholic Philippines.
The major rebel organizations are no longer waging armed struggle, but harder-line splinter groups such as the Abu Sayyaf have remained a threat.
Goldberg warned Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian group responsible for the deadly 2002 bombings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, and other foreigners were in Mindanao.
“This is a very serious issue,” Goldberg said.
“We are not just dealing with Abu Sayyaf but groups from the region like Jemaah Islamiyah. We see increasing efforts from ISIS to become involved.”